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Boris Johnson at Covid-19 press conference

Boris Johnson at Covid-19 press conference, Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The rift which has opened up between the government and scientific advisors further amplifies Johnson’s negligence, argues Alex Snowdon.

It feels like a long time ago that Boris Johnson would be filmed at daily media briefings, loyally flanked by senior medical and scientific figures - most often Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the chief scientific officer and chief medical officer respectively. Since then the gulf between the government and the scientists - even the official advisers - has widened more and more. 

The centrality of top advisers to the daily briefings was a vital part of Tory PR efforts. They provided much-needed authority - and an appearance of neutrality - to what might otherwise look like an extended party-political broadcast. Their involvement was crucial to the creation and public projection of a consensus. 

Dissatisfaction with their timidity prompted the formation of Independent Sage, an alternative to the official advisory body on the pandemic chaired by Whitty and Vallance. Even while the daily briefings were still happening, it was noted that the role of the senior official figures declined towards the end - a reflection of greater discord between politicians and experts. 

Circuit breaker 

This week it has emerged that Sage recommended a circuit-breaker as long ago as 21 September. There is now a broad consensus among the public health experts that a circuit-breaker (which would be very close to full lockdown) of at least two weeks is urgently required. It comes in the context of a continuing rapid rise on all three significant measures: infections, hospital admissions and deaths. 

Whitty has made it clear that Johnson’s three-tier alert system, announced this week, will be insufficient to bring the infection numbers down. In the vast majority of areas, the new system involves no tightening of restrictions at all. In north east England, where I live, the pubs remain open, there is no instruction to universities to deliver learning online and the schools are fully open. 

A set of documents released this week has revealed not only that Sage members recommended a circuit breaker on 21 September, but that even earlier - on 16 September - Whitty and Vallance had advised Johnson of massive problems ahead if more serious measures were not adopted. This includes the threat of overwhelming NHS capacity, as we are now close to seeing in some areas. 

A paper prepared for the 21 September Sage meeting warned of “catastrophic consequences” if stronger nationwide measures were not swiftly introduced. Yet Johnson and his ministers, with chancellor Rishi Sunak particularly resistant, have ignored the warnings. They have delayed, dithered and stuck dogmatically to localised prohibitions that aren’t working. 

The government has increasingly ignored the advice offered by experts. This is influenced by the idea that public health considerations ought to be balanced with economic imperatives. 

Yet this is a false balance. A short-term collapse in economic activity in order to control the pandemic would make more sense in the long term than the Tories’ current chaotic approach. 

Lockdown plus testing 

A short, sharp lockdown now would hopefully prevent the need for repeated cycles of relieving and reimposing restrictions over a period of several months. Such chaos and incoherence are what we currently appear to be drifting into. 

A severe short-term approach is likely to be sensible from a long-term economic perspective. It is a matter of saving thousands of lives from a public health perspective. The longer the government delays, the more likely it is that a lockdown (when it finally comes) will be prolonged or inadequate - or both. 

This, however, is just one side of the argument put by many Sage members. The other side is the necessary ramping up of testing and contact tracing capacity. 

A short lockdown is required to halt the rise in cases, allowing time to expand testing and make tracing and isolating more effective. This was always the logic behind lockdown, but the government lifted restrictions from May onwards without putting that in place. 

Countries that have been very successful in minimising the impact - both human and economic - of the pandemic used their lockdowns to quickly make test-and-trace effective. The World Health Organisation has consistently advocated this approach.  

Consensus fractures 

Johnson is under great pressure from the Tory back benches - in the opposite direction. Many Tory MPs are pushing for the lifting of existing restrictions. They are implacably opposed to any extending of the restrictions, particularly to a circuit breaker. 

This pressure from Tory MPs is a counterweight to the advice from Sage (and the even stronger recommendations from Independent Sage). But it also pulls in the opposite direction to a number of other political and social forces - local government, the Labour Party and key trade unions - which are now advocating stronger measures. 

The consensus has fractured. Local government leaders in northern England have clashed head-on with central government in the last couple of weeks. They rightly feel that they don’t have either the financial support or the mass testing needed to make the restrictions work. 

Keir Starmer has moved Labour’s position to one of openly advocating a circuit breaker, though wrongly seeking to exclude schools. The National Education Union has endorsed the call, but with a stronger position of demanding that secondary schools and colleges are included. Lecturers’ union UCU has become more vocal in calling for a shift to online learning in the universities and colleges. 

The evidence points to the need for an immediate circuit breaker of at least two weeks, or longer if necessary, which includes the closure of all schools, non-food retail and non-essential workplaces. Universities and colleges should be doing online learning this term. 

To be successful, this has to be accompanied by financial support to enable people to self-isolate and to protect livelihoods. This includes full sick pay for anyone required to self-isolate and a proper furlough scheme which provides 100% of regular pay. While this happens, the test-and-trace system needs to be transformed: coordinated, public and increased in scope. 

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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